How was Jürgen Moltmann seen by the Latin American Liberation Theologians. A facebook conversation between theologians, April 2020.

Back in April there was a discussion that sparked up in the Jürgen Moltmann Discussion Group on Facebook. A minister and theologian based out of Fiji, had asked for some resources for a question on the famous exchange between the Hope Theologian and his Liberation Theology counterparts.

This is the transcript of the discussion that followed. I have only put the initials of the contributors, but you can find that post directly here for if you wish to get in touch about the research discussed.

DC: Can anyone help me? I am looking for a reference, an article or chapter, exploring Moltmann’s relation to liberation theology. Particularly how Lib Theo at first embraced Moltmann’s theology but finally distanced themselves from it. I use to have some of this “on file” but seem to have lost it and the references I had. In my moves (I now teach in Fiji) I seem to have lost several. Thanks!

Thread One:

PO: I deal with this a little in the first chapter of The Transformative Church. Kindle version is on sale for $2.99 today.

DC: Thanks, it comes up at $6.99. Am I missing something?

PO: Amazon pricing differences, I guess. I can get you the chapter (it’s also adapted from my dissertation, if you can hunt that down), same main title.

DC: Thanks. Ill have a look and see what I can find.

Thread Two:

JB: This is a WCC reflection on Moltmann.

JB: In Passion for God he revisits Crucified God… A self reflection…


DC: Thanks friend!

Thread Three:

MI: Can I just cheat and ask why liberation theology distanced itself from Moltmann? Purely for my own curiosity. And at what stage did it do so? He seemed to have been an impotent [sic] advocate of it, without failing to understand that as a white European he couldn’t do the speaking for them.

AJHB (me): In short the Latin Americans needed space. It was not just an intellectual distancing — no theology is just intellectual, after all — but something to do with identity, standing on one’s own terms, staking one’s own claims.

There was a whole lot going on at the time, as you’ll well know. Hope Theology was enthusiastically received in Europe and North America and it was received as useful and even exciting in Latin America and the Third World, too.

The problem comes when the theologies/proponents actually meet. They do so in front of European audiences, in European locations, on European terms. Home court and all that. And people ARE enthusiastic: “my God, first Moltmann, and now Latin America are doing something similar!” And then there’s Metz with Political Theology, and Richard Shaull (who was a bridge to Latin America through Brazil).

And the Latin Americans are like: “hold up. We’re not… you’re missing something here. We’re not saying the same thing as you.”

North Atlantic folk were all like: “uhhh, yeh but you kind of are. You’re basically European heritage, European-trained theologians from Latin America writing books with entirely European references… and it sounds like Moltmann and Metz and Shaull and that’s cool coz we really like it. Let’s be friends.”

And the Latin Americans, who are being killed for it, but who also are, you know, all those things but f*** you for saying it are like “nahhh, you don’t even know. And also, let me point out some of your b-s-…”

And the Euro-American liberals be like “Oh it’s like that then?”

And the South be like: “Oh it’s like that.”


And it took that to assert oneself against the overfamiliarity of well-intentioned white liberal Euro-American folx, even if they did have some good points and even if poor Moltmann got caught in the middle of the whole thing and became the piñata by representing all of the Latin American’s frustrations with European theology, despite being their closest analogue, their major contemporary resource (they all quote him before the beef kicks off), and eventually their biggest ally and even companion.

While everyone was hurting at the time, they all learned from it and came together on their own terms.

DC: from around 79 there was a good relationship, he was influential among LT. Then as he distanced himself from the revolutionary impulse and his eschatology was seen by LT as too much supporting the status quo… there was a distancing. (as I understand it.). Likewise, and arguably (and what I am researching), as LT’s theological convictions and methods continued to move/find a home with more traditional classically liberal theology (the collapse of theology into ethics has Hauerwas and other post-liberals call it), there was a natural distancing since M, following Barth’s impulse was a 3rd way, neither liberal or conservative (more post-liberal).

DC: Alexander Jordan Holmes-Brown yes. for sure this is part of it.

DC: also, I know that LT would not think they are methodologically “liberal” but think they have moved beyond such euroamerican categories. Nevertheless, if one reads for example the post-liberal critique of liberalism, one can easily see LT’s indebtedness to the fundamental theological assumptions – experiential foundationalism…

AJHB: You beat me to that last point. I was gonna bring up the “liberal” badge for LT. Yeh, you’re right they found the status quo supported in Moltmann because of the abstractness they saw in him.

Obviously, he’s coming from Europe as a participant/victim of the War. So he doesn’t opt for one political party. He doesn’t say we need to put our efforts into the revolution alongside socialists. He’s writing from divided Germany and sees the dangers of such a view, in Nazism, Fascism, Communism, in extremes. And it’s not that he’s not brave, or not committed, but he is writing to a generation who have seen all of that and need now an answer for what is really going on. I think Moltmann is doing pastoral and therapeutic thinking in a sense. He is answering the questions he sees. And he sees great potential in (he’s disappointed at the ending of) the Marxist-Christian Dialogues, but yeh, he’s coming from Europe, Germany-no-less, at a very specific point in time and he says things, from his own brokenness and vision and pathos, that make sense to a kind of human suffering and hope which many people from all walks can read and understand.

But the Latin Americans were just then, when Moltmann’s theology goes global and they are working out their own, dealing with an entirely different world, even with many parallels. What people often forget to do is look at the timeline of assassinations and massacres next to the timeline of the major meetings. So for the EATWOT of 1980, Romero was shot a couple weeks afterward. A couple weeks before some Ixil and Quiche Indios were burned alive. Or when the Latin Americans arrived in Detroit for the TiA 1975 Conference, Dussel reminds the people that some of them are in exile, on the run from the death squads. Universally applicable, non-partisan theology was not an option for them. They get to conferences where people are on the Hope Theology wagon, and very welcoming of their own, and they look around and don’t see friends. The one who has come from danger doesn’t now sit easily at the table with theologians remarking on elaborate theological innovations in the very house of the enemy.

That Moltmann was never the crowd that surrounded his theology (and whatever was new, as well as whatever didn’t cost too much or ask too much) was something we know from hindsight.

AJHB: I don’t know if I follow you on the “liberal” thing though.

MI: Thanks for the help, all. That makes a lot of sense.

DC: Alexander Jordan Holmes-Brown It’s a larger thesis than I can develop here, but basically it seems to me that some of LT impulse (as it is sometimes currently expressed at least rhetorically) here in the Pacific anyway tends to downplay or even deny (as a reaction to the historical otherworldly pietism in Pacific Churches) the eschatological realism that M proposes -the New Creation as coming from outside history where our efforts now at best are not salvific but occasional proleptic anticipations of the new creation. Rather LT here can sometimes seem to overemphasize to the exclusion of future salvation the present nature of salvation. (Both being important in my view.) This emphasis here is completely understandable, but without the vision of the coming kingdom to guide, the ethical teleological vision here will find content elsewhere than theology (eg. post-colonial theory [more so than the older marxist / socialist view.] To that end, theology or doctrine collapses into ethics. This was what Barth and more recently post-liberals argue (convincingly to me) happened with in liberal theology and for example with Niebuhr. In Hauerwas’s Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics he tells the story of the invention and failure or collapse of “Christian Ethics” into incoherence in a similar narrative way to what MacIntyre does for general ethics in After Virtue. To Hauerwas, modern Christian ethics is hamstrung by its loss of theology and liberal methodology. My general point is that LT (at least the concern around here) can collapse theology into ethics in a similar way for similar methodological reasons and replaces doctrine/theology with some other tool (anthropology, social analysis, postcolonial theory…) UNLESS something like M’s vision of the new creation sets the ethical telos. Of course, for LT’s methodology, starting with such theory, even theological theory like this, rather than starting with the concrete experience of oppression and marginalization is a methodological no no. If however one looks at the critique of foundationalism (liberal and concervative) by those like Nancy Murphy, one can see quickly that LT’s methodology in this respect embodies experiential foundationalism, which ironically is simply a version of euroamerican liberalism… Anyway, I am rambling now…

AJHB: Oh yes, now I see what you mean. Yes, I see that collapse of the two! Thank you for explaining. It makes sense, even with the bits I don’t know… (I’m not widely read outside of Latin American thought, which is what I follow).

HL: Liberation Theology is a proposal to transform society Moltmann stay only in the theological arena and European Academia

Thread Four:

AJHB: I’ve spent a lot of time on this over the past 5 years. I got some articles and chapters worth checking out. I can even probably send you some photocopies of things you wont be able to find online.

It’s actually a surprisingly big topic with a lot said on it. And there are several different stages in the dialogue/debate between Moltmann and Latin American theologians.

Happy to talk about it!

AJHB: Probably the two most succinct pieces on Moltmann and TdL are:

José Miguez Bonino’s “Reading Jürgen Moltmann in Latin America” we are fortunate enough to have online via Asbury Seminary. 

And Moltmann’s own chapter on Latin American Liberation Theology in his Experiences in Theology, especially pages 217-220 on his personal experience. I can photocopy that for you if you need.

AJHB: These two texts are a good choice also because it was Moltmann v. Bonino that really kicked off.

DC: Awesome Alexander, thank you so very much. I do not have Experiences in Theology here with me in Fiji, so a pdf of that section would be much appreciated. The Bonino article is wonderful.

DC: If anyone is interested in why I am asking: I am teaching an MTh course here are the Pacific Theological College in Fiji next term. I’m offering a seminar on “Doing Theology from the Margins” (De La Torre) [a liberationist theological ethics]. Student’s will be comparing this with the euroamerican ethical tradition and I want to bring in Moltmann’s voice.

Thread Five:

PO: Also, while I’m thinking of it, he covers his perspective on this in his autobiography, A Broad Place. He was personally hurt by the reality. There were a lot of dynamics in play. My overall impression is that it was an important step to take, to become less tethered to Europe, but handled in an unfortunate way. Esp. since a lot of liberation theologians were themselves elites born in Europe and utilized Marx (and tended to be light skinned and men).

DC: yes, I somewhat remember this and have actually heard him speak about it. I have A Broad Place with me and will consult it. Thanks for the head’s up.

AJHB: Hugo Assmann is the one some describe as the most vocally Marxist and with the most antipathy to European/North American political theologies at once. In the WCC Geneva meeting, 1973, where in front of about 60 European theologians I think (I’m still not sure if Moltmann was there), Assmann and Freire were brought to share their LA TdL alongside Cone and Bodipo-Malumba sharing of Black Theology.

Assmann mentions his white skin, his European name. His embarrassment about it. He’s talking to his Black conversation partners. Not to the Europeans. During the conference the Latin Americans and the Black Theologians both realize they’ve been invited to put forward the merits of their respective theologies in a rather uneven setting. They seem to at first be gearing up against each other. They know that they are not yet sure if they are around colleagues of [sic, or*] what else. And by the end or mid-way through, imperceptibly to us (we only have small testimony of that meeting) they realise that not [sic, no*] matter what they ought to keep on talking with each other in the future and less so with the Europeans who anyway seem to have them both here on show and up for interrogation.

Of course, the Europeans probably thought they were providing a platform, and they were. But the way it was set-up and experienced, and the defensiveness at that stage — it’s 1973 — Malcolm and Martin have been killed, 120 U.S. cities have been in flames, nothing like it has been seen since the Civil War / Allende has been overthrown, before Chile it was Brazil, soon enough it’ll be the whole Southern Cone under dictatorship — meant that that encounter would forever be remembered under the name “incommunication”. But Freire dubbed Cone a “Third World” man there, and they agreed that they lived in a situation of ‘dependency’ (that word still was a key rubric for TdL at the time).

It would be the Black Theologians who most critiqued the Latin Americans for being white and European. It came head-to-head at the 1975 TiA meeting in Detroit, firstly. This distrust fluctuated in the 70s as a couple of conferences in the Caribbean (Barbados, Trinidad, and Cuba) as well as Mexico showed the willingness and unwillingness of the Latin Americans to engage with race. In the 1980 Sao Paulo EATWOT meeting, Cone had to level the first gen Latin American liberationists AGAIN for still not getting it.

Since then, Liberation Theology/s in Latin America have come a long way. EATWOT itself has been huge in that. The sexism/masculinity, and the whiteness, plus the europeanness have given way to more Indigenous and local expressions. Economic analysis has taken on more subtleties than dependency theory. But at that point in its history, it was still being born. Those theologians were products of their time BUT they weren’t just elites and European intellectuals, they were part of a generation that was truly Latin American, as our many martyrs show.

DC: Alexander Jordan Holmes-Brown This is golden. Thank you so much.

PO: Golden indeed. Well put.

PO: I think the tension is that Moltmann felt he was compatriot to them in their efforts, not an outsider or elite. But he represented something too, even unwittingly. A lot of talking past each other in an era where the silences were breaking.

AJHB: Yes definitely that is true about Moltmann. He wanted to extend his friendship. It was was all so fraught to be in each other’s paths like that with not just all the human things that get in the way but that whole noise of being public theologians doing “dialogue” in seminars. You can’t just instant-message each other being like “shit, I came off kind of like” or “you wanna skype and …” Anyone who is sensitive to other people, not a complete monster, feels a whole lot when they’ve been misunderstood. It’s even terrifying.

We’re lucky to have their testimonies now. The (in)ommunication itself is a gospel lesson. (That is my research topic). But if I could go back I’d wish to sit them each down and let them have a good cry about it, because I feel like I know, we all know, what that feels like.


DC: thanks so much for this!

JB: There is a good book… Especially for Methodist, Anglican and United Church students…

Sanctification & liberation : liberation theologies in light of the Wesleyan tradition / edited by Theodore Runyon ; prepared under the direction of the World Methodist Council.

Oxford Institute on Methodist Theological Studies (6th : 1977)

DC: Thanks, that could be useful. I assume it is available here right?

JB: I have a copy

AJHB: Bonino was a Methodist, btw.

LG: If I recall, Moltmann addresses some of this in his autobiography that was fascinating to read. From his perspective, obviously.

Thread Six:

SJ: It’s been a long time since I read it, but Rebecca Chopp’s *The Praxis of Suffering* has a chapter on Moltmann and (as I recall) she deals with at least several liberationist critiques of him.

AJHB: Yeh that’s a good book. I got it here on my shelf. That and one by Gary J Dorrien are both really good introductions to several thinkers.

R.S. Chopp does Gutierrez, Metz, Bonino, Moltmann, in that order.

Dorrien does Rauschenbusch, Tillich, Moltmann, Gutierrez, Bonino, in that order.

VM: Which of Dorriens books does he explore these? Thanx.

AJHB: Oh yeh I forgot to say. ‘Reconstructing the Common Good: Theology and the Social Order’.

VM: Alexander Jordan Holmes-Brown Thank you!

JM: where about in Fiji you’re now teaching – PTC, PRS or DTC?

JM: Moltmann’s Liberation Theology can be found in two of his well known books:‘Theology of Hope’ and ‘The Crucified Christ’. His idea is God suffered for Humanity through Christ.

JM: Have you come across Eleazer S Fernandez – Philippino American Theologian’s work? Few of his books are ‘The Dream Unfinished’,

‘Reimagining the Human: Theological Anthropology in Response to Systemic Evil’ and ‘Theology of Struggle’ at UTS (MN).

The End

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